The Big Idea: Cory Doctorow
Last year my editor at Tor Books, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, gave me a manuscript copy of Little Brother, Cory Doctorow’s young adult thriller, to see if I might want to blurb it. About halfway into it, I wanted to stop reading it — not because I didn’t like it, but because I wanted to jam it into the hands of the next 14-year-old I saw and say, “you need to read this more than I do.” With his hacker teen hero Marcus battling an increasingly-authoritarian government that has turned a terrorized San Francisco into a civil rights-free zone, Cory has indulged in his passion for promoting the rights of the individual in the best way possible: by telling a hell of page-turning story, written to and for the teens who are trying to figure out how their world works, and what they want to make it from there.
As it turned out, I did keep reading it, I did blurb it (“The right book at the right time from the right author–and, not entirely coincidentally, Cory Doctorow’s best novel yet”) and I strongly suspect it’ll be in the running for a Hugo nomination next year. More importantly, I think you’re going to read and hear a lot of folks arguing about the book and what it says about where we might be heading. That’s a conversation worth having — and worth having teens participating in.
Cory’s dropped by today to talk about the Big Idea of Little Brother. Having now gushed enough about the book, I’ll now give him the floor.
We live in an era where new forms of literacy arise on a daily basis. How can you figure out which search-engine results to trust? What happens to your Facebook disclosures? How can you tell whether a camera, ID check, or rule is making you safer or less safe? In the absence of the right critical literacy tools, you’ll never know how to read a Wikipedia article so that you can tell if it’s believable, you’ll never know how to keep from ruining your adulthood with the videos you post as a teenager, and you’ll never know when your government is making you safer or less safe.
Little Brother tells the story of young people who bootstrap their own security literacy because the adults around them fail to do so. I think that’s a depressingly realistic storyline, unfortunately. Security is hard to get right, and doubly so when it involves unfamiliar threats and countermeasures — can you tell at a glance whether the new high-tech lock in the window of your bike shop will work? (Here’s a clue: the best-selling lock brand for two decades was recently shown to be breakable with a disposable Bic pen in 10 seconds flat)
Kids — the so-called “digital natives” — are better positioned to understand whether electronic surveillance, data-mining, and snitch-systems are going to make the world a better place or turn us into a dystopia that makes Orwell into an optimist. They have the bone-deep sense of what this stuff means, what it’s useful for, and how it works.
But they need critical tools and they need to sharpen those critical tools through debate and discussion, and that’s where Little Brother comes in. I don’t expect you to agree with everything I say — and I certainly hope that kids question every word here, and figure this out for themselves.
We live in an age where critical discussion of security is literally illegal. You can’t turn to the TSA officer who’s just taken away your water bottle and say, “I don’t believe that you can bomb a plane with water.” Mentioning the word “bomb” in front of a TSA agent is not allowed. In London, where I live, the police have just put up posters asking people to report anyone who takes pictures of the ubiquitous CCTV cameras that photograph the average Londoner 300 times a day. If you wanted to take a photo of every camera on your morning walk to put on your blog and start a discussion with your neighbors, you can now become the subject of an investigation, a presumptive terrorist whose crime is taking explicit notice of the “security” that is watching your every move.
The difference between freedom and totalitarianism comes down to this: do our machines serve us, or control us? We live in the technological age that puts all other technological ages to shame. We are literally covered in technology, it rides in our pockets, pressed to our skin, in our ears, sometimes even implanted in our bodies. If these devices treat us as masters, then there is no limit to what we can achieve. But if they treat us as suspects, then we are doomed, for the jailers have us in a grip that is tighter than any authoritarian fantasy of the Inquisition.